Saturday, June 27, 2009

I (heart) HCMC

Within moments of setting foot in Viet Nam we fell victim to a scam. We had heard that Vietnam could be crooked, but wanted to keep an open-mind, only to be pushed into a cab, taken for a $14 ride as his "meter" jumped from $1 to $3 before our eyes and continued rising according to some formula based on time and kilometer multiplied exponentially. When he shoved us out he tried to leave without giving us change to make an extra $4. He gave it to us and got out of there. We tried to get over our bitterness at our most expensive cab ride ever, walked down the street, found a hotel, got some dinner and took a stroll around the block. That's when things started to look familiar. Sure enough our bus had dropped us half a block from our chosen hotel. Of course we feel like idiots for not knowing where we were, but we were sleep deprived from involuntarily attended raves and our bootleg photocopy of Lonely Planet Viet Nam had very poor quality maps. We were naive enough to believe a cab driver would tell us we were already in the neighborhood where we said we wanted to be... I am fairly confident that in any other country we have visited the cab driver would have kindly let us know we were already here, but this guy preyed on our unfamiliarity, jacked his meter, then tried to steal our change, all while asking us where we were from and telling us how to say hello in Vietnamese. Not only was it cruel to us, but it was also cruel to Viet Nam since almost every traveler we met in Lao and Cambodia told us stories of getting ripped off here.

But, other than that embittering first experience, all of our other experiences in Saigon, officially known as Ho Chi Minh City, have been wonderful, with the exception of the three million motorbikes that threaten your life at every intersection. The pho is delicious and the iced Vietnamese coffee is plentiful. The War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the Museum of American War Crimes, was educational for me since I never really understood how the US came to be involved in Vietnam's civil war. In combination with "The Quiet American" and a brief history lesson, I think I have a better understanding of the looong history of occupation endured by the Vietnamese. I wonder if thirty years from now my children might go to a similar museum in Baghdad...

Today we went to Saigon's Chinatown, which looked to my eye like pretty much anywhere else in Saigon. I think Grant Street in San Francisco's Chinatown might be one the best looking tourist streets in any Chinatown worldwide. We tried to go to Shark Waterworld, an waterpark in Chinatown, but swimming trunks were banned! in order to go John would have had to buy either an overpriced speedo or some boxer-brief style lycra suits that cost more than the entrance fee . So we ate durian ice cream instead to escape the heat.

Tomorrow we are headed into the central highlands and then up the coast. When I was in A.P. English in high school, my teacher, who may or may not have been a veteran, was obsessed with Viet Nam. We read 'The Things They Carried' and watched 'Apocalypse Now.' Everyone had to choose an aspect of Vietnamese culture to illustrate with a visual aid. With the help of my dad, I created a three-dimensional topographical map of Vietnam out of clay, which I baked in our oven, painted according to elevation complete with rivers, and mounted on a piece of wood. I think it is still sitting in the basement of my parents' house and I remember it every time I see the silhouette of Viet Nam on countless t-shirts and signs here. American popular culture is obsessed with Viet Nam - how many movies are there about the war? This little country looms very large in our collection imagination. I am grateful to have the chance to replace some of the myth with experience.

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